Do you ever really ‘exit sex work’?

The idea of exiting sex work is exceptionally controversial. The word ‘exit’ itself is considered odd to use, because it wouldn’t be used in any other form of work. Nobody ever exits their job, only the premises. I don’t particularly like the word much myself, but I will use it for the purpose of this blog post because it is the word that most people use, and is itself used in policy, ideological debates and whatever else when it comes to prostitution.

The goal of the Nordic Model is to support women to ‘exit sex work’. We are promised exiting routes, transitions, and support to leave the industry, packaged up nicely as a concept. This idea means that sex work is bad and must be eliminated, otherwise, you wouldn’t need to leave or exit it. How can you exit your job when you need money to survive, or have to pay your bills? Nobody can live without money, and you are asking me to stop being able to do this, simply because you don’t like how I do it.

What is exit?

There was a time in life where I was doing street sex work, working at an agency and doing independent work. At times, I was working literally all day & night. Now, I work when I need or have to, no longer work street and largely do independent work as the agency is closed. When it re-opens, I’ll stick only to agency. For me, this is amazing progress because I was on the mental drive all the time to work, in fear of ending up homeless, or relying on abusive third parties. I haven’t ‘exited’ so to speak, but I am really proud of myself, and so is my support worker. However, despite this amazing progress, if I was being pushed to exit, then I’ll still be penalised and told this isn’t good enough.

A friend of mine was a street sex worker for several years. Now, she works indoor with a few regulars she used to see and trusts. I think this is a great improvement and has significantly improved her safety too. Like most sex workers, she had a long gap between working, but would she be seen as having ‘relapsed’ into sex work? I would argue no, because I don’t think she ever exited. I also know a sex worker who used to work for several years, and despite having a full-time job now, she still occasionally sees clients for a top-up of cash. She hasn’t done sex work full time in perhaps 20 years, so you can argue she has both exited or never left sex work.

Exiting is notoriously difficult to measure, and you can’t accurately establish when someone has. If I work with a sex worker who works when she needs a bit of cash, is it fair to bash her with a stick because she hasn’t ‘exited’ in the way you want her to, which is complete abstinence. No, it isn’t fair.

There was a recent Independent Review on the Managed Zone recently which tried to establish whether the current model did in fact help women to exit sex work. They also found it difficult to measure exiting, and how can you measure against something you can’t establish. Exiting is not a concrete term and measure, it is different for each sex worker.

Why exit is useless

As discussed, because it can’t be measured, you can’t prove whether outcomes are successful or not., As a result, how can you ever work out if what you did actually worked? If I start an exiting charity, but I can’t actually define what is an exited prostitute, when how do I ever get proof of what I did was the right thing? You can’t, and each sex worker is different, with different motivations for working, with their own unique circumstances which sustain their reasons too.

When you support sex workers and your goal is to help them exit, they will never tell you if they’re actually still working. Why would they when you’re going to shame them for it, or tell them it’s not good enough? As a result, they’re at greater risk and unlikely to reach out to you for support, and it means they’ll be scared to go to sexual health services and speak about being a sex worker. In turn, you inadvertently do more harm than good, because you force them back into the shame closet.

The reason why exiting is useless is because it ignores the surrounding socio-economic factors. How can you ever leave it when the pre-existing conditions which resulted in you becoming a sex worker are still there? This could be poverty, addiction, disability, criminal record or struggling to work in the mainstream economy for various reasons such as being a single parent. If these issues aren’t resolved, how can you be expected to leave? Situations in life are often temporary, especially when you already live in the margins of society. People relapse, people end up in debt again, people face ill health and relapse in poor health, including mental health.

It would be pretty cruel to put the blame and shame on the individual for not exiting when they are faced with or have to repeatedly experience the contexts which keep them in sex work to begin with – why should we blame them for finding a solution in a shitty situation with poor economic choices, which wasn’t even caused by them. I quit sex work on 20th January 2020 after being assaulted, I decided that was it. I ended up in hospital, had sepsis and had a catheter in for 2 months. However, when it was removed, I went straight back out to street sex work because I was skint. Moving in an out of sex work is nothing new.

Once a whore

Once you became a hooker, you either are one or an ex hooker – it’s something that sticks to you forever. For many, it’s a part of their identity, community and it would be cruel to deny their experiences. Even when the time comes when you decide to leave the sex industry, hang up the suspenders and turn your hand to something something other than dick, sex work is always there as an option, and we can’t deny it! Once you’ve done it once, there is no reason why you can’t do it again, and especially if the same circumstances arise which led you to becoming a sex worker to begin with.

I always tell people that no matter what, I will always be a sex worker because I know it will be something I do if I ever find myself skint. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know for certain that if one Christmas, I find myself with children who need presents, or the washing machine breaks down, or an unexpected bill drops through the letterbox, I know I will turn to sex work to resolve it. One of the biggest things that keeps me in sex work is the fear of becoming homeless again, so I do everything I can to avoid that. I know if I got even just close to becoming on my ass skint, I’d start working full time again until I felt I was out of the red.

Recently, I’ve been struggling more and more to sex work itself as the negatives are heavily outweighing the positives, but this would all be disregarded the moment the balance tips again or there is an immediate need for money. Whilst there is the need for money, there will be the need to sex work and unless I win the lottery, then sex work will always be there as a solution for me and many others. If I relapse on crack or heroin, I know sex work will be there for me too.

I know sex workers in their 50s who have vanilla jobs and used to sex work in their 20s and 30s, but they still occasionally see a client here and there for a quick £100. How do we measure if they’ve left sex work?

Love it or hate it

It’s safe to say I have a love/hate relationship with sex work; I don’t like doing it much anymore, but I love the financial freedom it gives me, and it means I don’t have to work 40 hours a week, which at time during drug recovery is bliss for me. I still enjoy going to drop ins, women’s projects, groups and the ability to wake up and think fuck it, I can’t bring myself to work today.

No matter what happens in life, sex work will always be my security blanket – the thing that has been most stable in my life, always produced results and kept me afloat. I don’t recommend anyone become a sex worker, but once you’re here, it’s hard to leave, and it’s even harder to remove your security blanket from you forever.

Even if I’m not physically sex working anymore, it doesn’t mean I’ve completely left because I know in a heartbeat I’d be back if I need to be.

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